Monthly Archives: January 2010

Cheating

Pub quiz this evening.  Would it be cheating if I were to take the pocket-‘puter (aka ‘phone) and use it to google?

In my book yes, it would be cheating.  But there must surely be people who do it.  In any case, who cares, in the context of something so supremely unimportant as a pub quiz?

What about other, more meaningful events?  How many pocket-puters get taken into the exams our young folks are doing for real-life qualifications?  I have a distant recollection of the question of allowing pocket calculators being a hottish topic in my day; nowadays the calculator is one and the same device as the phone, camera, walkman, pocket-puter, etc.  How is an exam invigilator to tell what other functions a candidate’s calculator offers?

On the other hand, maybe that’s supremely unimportant too.  A candidate with the nouse to google is going to find school exams utterly trivial, too.  And once you’re at university level, the ability to use available resources – including google – is a core part of the skillset you’re supposed to be demonstrating.

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If you can fake sincerity …

Our most accomplished Liar has been questioned by the Iraq inquiry today[1].  The meeja can still find a few people to defend him, but not many, and even some of his fellow war-criminals (such as Jack Straw) have now turned on him.  Having nothing to lose by it, he put on a show of defiance.

The chattering classes seem pretty sure that Iraq will be The Liar’s legacy.  I’m not at all so sure: Iraq will pass into history, and become just another Suez.  He’s done altogether more damaging things to us.  Let’s take four of them in ascending order of importance.

OK, the first is a bit of a cheat: it was probably historically inevitable.  So, first, and least important, he’s brought corruption to the heart of government.  We’ve had a slew of high-profile cases starting with Ecclestone, and … list left as an exercise for the reader.  This is ironic, given that “tory sleaze” was one of the things that lost the 1997 election for his predecessor.  But that sleaze was small-scale stuff typified by £1000 to a backbencher to ask a parliamentary question[2].  Not millions, not at the heart of government, no direct purchase of government policy (so far as we know).

Second, he’s dismantled historical freedoms including those parts of human rights that are actually worth something.  You don’t need me to tell you about detention without trial or shootings and kidnappings of the innocent (and subsequent behaviour that’s not consistent with an honest mistake).  That some (notably not all) in the police should ask for elements of a police state is fair enough; that the government should give them all they ask and far more is not.

I’ve put this second because … I’m not clear to what extent this is Blair himself, when his best friend was opening up a whole Gulag at Guantanamo.  Maybe one could make a case that it’s as serious as the next one, though a long way from his worst legacy.

Third, what he’s done with our constitution, having spent much of his early years in office playing with it like a small boy with his toys.  In particular, Scottish (and Welsh) parliaments that leave the Westlothian Question and the Barnett Formula as open wounds (and on the other side, North Sea revenues) plunge the countries that make up the UK into a relationship that can only go one way: increasing resentment and hostility.  Fixing it is going to be a real headache for a future government.

Fourth, head and shoulders above the sum total of Iraq and all the above, is his most terrible legacy: the awakening of religious tension as a mainstream phenomenon.  Before Blair, we would live and let live.  Most of us were rarely aware of anyone’s religion (except in Northern Ireland), and didn’t see religious symbols as a threat or a challenge.  For example, the headscarves worn by some malaysian and indonesian students were just a cultural thing: nothing to worry or get upset about for anyone.  If one were to observe anything more it’s that the wearers always seemed to be a lot more attractive than the stern, elderly Catholic nuns in similar headwear.  Now we have us-and-them: the basis for suspicion, fear and hatred.  We all know those scarves have religious significance, and they and other overt symbols have been turned into something divisive.

The worst legacy is what he’s done to our schools and public life: You can have any religion you like, so long as you renounce the Enlightenment.  By promoting religion (including fundamentalist nuts) in education, we’re fostering a generation of “us and them”, to regard each other with fear and suspicion.  Now that’s the kind of historic legacy that can be with us for centuries, as witness the fear and hatred of Catholics that had its roots in the Spanish Inquisition, and such events in this country as the Gunpowder Plot (the “9/11” of its day) and still lives on in Northern Ireland.  Instead of bringing peace to Northern Ireland[3], his lasting legacy will be NI-style us-and-them nationwide.

[1] As with the previous inquiries, this is being conducted by government appointees.  This one is getting some better material for the press than before, because they know they won’t go away until they’ve been thrown a bone or two that people find credible.  We can only speculate on what isn’t being said.

[2] And the far better reason for Major to lose was the level of nastiness in his party, that first saw off Thatcher, then gave Major a hard time, and peaked under Hague before subsiding in defeat.

[3] He may have improved Northern Ireland itself, building on Major’s work, though the current outcome is to have crushed moderate politicians on both sides and given power to terrorists and other extremists.  I suspect that the relative peace there may be a consequence of “9/11”, and many of the IRA’s american backers suddenly losing their appetite for terrorism in the UK.  Along with lots of money paying them off.

Who is blocking what?

I have a problem with identifying myself.  Again.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that if we haven’t yet reached a point where it’s harder for me than for a competent fraudster to prove my identity, we can’t have far to go!

Specifically, I need to provide proof of identity by means of a bank statement.  Not an electronic one, which is all I get.  This is in order to open a new account elsewhere, that’ll pay relatively decent interest.

OK, ask at my local agency.  No, they can’t supply it, but suggest I call their call centre.

Try the call centre (and navigate through a voice-driven system that is long but at least works surprisingly well).  They can send an interim statement (on headed paper, so *hopefully* OK), but a full one will cost a tenner.  Probably worth it in the circumstances, but …

It’s the end of the month, so my regular statement should be due.  If I go online and amend my options to receive paper statements, it’s free.  Simple enough.

Except …

The system just hangs when I try to submit the request.  Dammit, now I recollect it doing the same thing repeatedly over about a week when I tried to view my full creditcard statement (which is mid-January).  Hmmm …

All this while I’m on the phone to the call centre.  They can’t change my options for me, and tell me to go back to my branch.  Grrr ….

Plan 3, get it up on the pocket-puter, and go down to the branch with that.  Try resubmitting a few times as I walk down the street.

And lo … suddenly it works, acknowledges my request!

What had changed?  I’d just walked out of range of my wifi, and submitted over the ‘phone network (and the different IP address didn’t log me out – so at least something was right)!  Presumably all that’s changed is that I was accessing them through a different route, and it suddenly works!

I have something slightly similar with some Yahoo sites, where access from my IP just hangs (this has not always been the case), but it works fine if I go through a proxy.  What gives?

Living with Maemo

OK, I’ve had the new pocket-puter a couple of weeks now, and apart from that keyboard I like it.  As predicted, I’ve come to terms with the touchscreen and find it easy to use (except for some web controls which can be hard to pick up: e.g. the volume control on the BBC iplayer).

Overall, I prefer the hardware on the old E71, with the obvious exceptions of the screen and camera where the N900 excels.  But the Maemo software is incomparably better.  Just to take one example, I want to connect to the ‘net using a wifi network where available but otherwise defaulting to the telephone network.  While Symbian requires a deal of faffing to do that, Maemo “just works”.

When I was contemplating the purchase, I asked on this blog what Maemo really is, and was assured that it’s a real Linux.  I can confirm that it is indeed that, and that I can install Linux packages through the Debian tools (apt-get et al).  I have yet to install gcc and a developer environment, but I don’t anticipate any difficulty with it.

Maemo is not stripped down to a toy: rather it takes a Debian base, and adds an alternative GUI, which is optimised for the small screen.  It’s intuitive and easy to use, and makes brilliant use of available screen space and the touchscreen.  Interactive applications toggle easily between fullscreen, fullscreen-with-toolbar, and thumbnail (minimised) with a consistent look-and-feel.  The web browser is a small-screen skin on gecko (firefox), and is not bad.  The mailer is positively nice, or will be when I figure out how to fix composition to get rid of pseudo-HTML: much better than some mainstream mailers I use, including thunderbird and to a lesser extent Mac mail.

One thing has me baffled: how do I bootstrap a password either for root or sudo?  After googling for a solution, I worked around it by installing a rootshell which gets me passwordless root powers (!), but that’s not the kind of hack to which I expect to have to resort.  /me shudders.

I’ve looked at Nokia’s OVI store, but I don’t see so much point to most of it when I have the whole repertoire of *X apps at my fingertips.  OK, having said that, I’m sure I’ll install some things: the radio player, for instance.  I installed a weather widget, but I don’t even recollect if that was from OVI or pre-loaded, and it’s only really a toy.  The only serious app I installed was the root shell, which seems to be a prerequisite for using apt!

One more slight niggle: on the E71, Nokia’s maps are nice, but Google’s are nicer.  On the N900 there’s no google maps: I can get them on the ‘net, but that loses the GPS functionality.  So it’s Nokia or nothing with the GPS.

But in a sense, all this is mere detail.  What I now have is connectivity from anywhere I can get the ‘phone network.  So I needn’t lose email, ssh, etc (and be fretting to get home) when I spend a day or two somewhere with no wifi available, whether it be in a technophobe house or up on the moors.  Yay!

Pocket-puter

This is a first post from the Nokia N900, using not my own wifi but O2’s mobile 3G (or whatever it’s called these days) network.

I have to say, I’m a bit disappointed.  I’m sure I’ll get used to the touchscreen, but altogether less inspired by this keyboard.  Having lived a year with the beautifully-engineered E71 and the world’s smallest (but nevertheless easy and pleasurable to use) QWERTY keyboard, I had some faith in Nokia’s designers.  It was evidently misplaced: this keyboard is poorly-designed and will always be a pain to use. Next up: try it with a full-size USB or bluetooth keyboard, but that doesn’t help when out in the hills, or on the bus.

I still expect to find uses for it.  It’s already better for Web than the E71 (bigger screen), and being Linux means I can presumably install things like decent mail and IRC apps.

[update] fix the typos that were inevitable on the N900 (but which magically don’t happen on the E71).

FOSDEM

Yes, I’m planning to be at FOSDEM next month.  Traveling by Eurostar Friday and Monday for a full weekend in Brussels.

I’ve booked the Renaissance Hotel, which is the same place I stayed last year.  I can recommend it to anyone who isn’t afraid of a bit of a walk: it’s a nice place, and quite a bit closer to the FOSDEM venue than a city-centre hotel.  And at winter weekend rates, the room price is vastly more reasonable than is usual in European conference cities!  But I don’t know if there’s a bus/tram route for non-walkers.

Anyone keen to meet up, drop me a line (if we’re not already talking about it).  Also, don’t forget to sign up for the PGP keysigning.

Still a mild winter!

Our news seems to be dominated by the “big freeze”.  Real snow, exceptionally low overnight temperatures (-21° somewhere in the Scottish highlands), and now little opportunity to thaw even by day.

Needless to say, we’re thoroughly mild by international standards.  Among places I’ve lived through a winter, not just boreal Sweden and continental Bavaria are routinely colder; even mediterranean central Italy gets it: I’ve slept under the stars in -20° there myself (and bought a winter-grade sleeping bag after a night of that)!

But here’s a telling point against our own history.  In the 1980s, the government introduced “cold weather payments” for pensioners when temperatures dropped below -2° continually for several days[1].  That was daytime maximum temperatures.

This year’s “big freeze” is still too mild to trigger those cold-weather payments!

A few days of freezing fog to keep the daytime sun out could bring us there.  But there’s no sign of that.  This is ideal weather for those with solar panels!

[1] I think the threshold was five days, but I can’t remember for sure.

Delivery!

My Nokia N900 porta-puter arrived today.  I look forward to playing with it, and being able to compute whilst out in the hills!  The more pressing question: will it take the place of the MacBook for things like FOSDEM weekend?

The delivery tracking system said it was out for delivery on Tuesday and Wednesday as well as today, but got delayed due to the weather.  I guess the delivery man is covering very much smaller areas than usual.  Fortunately I was at home to take delivery.

Also took delivery of better headphones, which I used today to listen to the radio on the e71 whilst out walking.  Not as comfy as I’d hoped from the picture, but still good to have.

Bugs, support and confusion

Someone recently reported a build problem as a “bug” in apache bugzilla: he’s been unable to build with LDAP support.  Setting aside the obvious workaround (use a ready-built distro package), what can we say?

(a) It’s probably user error rather than a bug.
(b) But only probably … it’s possible there’s a perfectly good LDAP install which the build scripts should have found.  General-purpose build scripts are notoriously tricky: that’s why commercial vendors wimp out and only ever support selected platforms/distros.
(c) It’s not clear whether the problem arises from the user’s OS/distro or from something he’s done, though it looks like the latter.
(d) We should also consider the possibility of a documentation bug.  That is to say, something that’s not a bug but where we could/should provide more helpful docs.

These are issues that need sorting out in a support forum.  Bugzilla is not supposed to be a support channel, and most of us are reluctant to let it be used as one (and may get shirty if you try).  Apache provides an official support mailinglist and there’s a semi-official IRC channel at Freenode, either of which would be a good start.  A common approach to “bugs” like this is to close them, with an invitation to re-open if they turn out to be (or reveal) an actual bug after working through what the user has really done.

In this case, I didn’t close it, but I did try to point the user at a support forum.  And then came the bombshell:

I have tried to ask for help and have placed a couple of questions on http://www.apache.com/forums/modules/installing-enable-authnz_ldap-module/ and got no response. If there are better forums please could you let me know where these are?

He’s gone to some third-party site that purports to provide a forum, and unsurprisingly come away empty-handed!  The usual response to that is dismissive: WTF does the luser expect from $random-probably-clueless-bod?  But in this case the domain is called apache.com and appears to be about apache.  Perhaps that makes our user’s confusion an understandable mistake?

Well, up to a point.  Apache.com does have a disclaimer (albeit only at the bottom after scrolling down a great deal of page).  And the user has found our bugzilla, which is unambiguously apache.org.  Hmmm, perhaps Bugzilla itself could use a bit more Help information, about where to seek help (the existing Help is only for Bugzilla itself).  A simple pointer to look for latest versions, project documentation, and support fora at [project-name].apache.org might avoid some confusion.

Winter light

We have real snow!  Not the usual english feeble apology for snow, but the real thing.  Several inches of soft crunchy stuff, more where it’s drifted.

Last time I saw real snow in England was when I lived in Sheffield in 1990-92, and I think even that was primarily on the higher ground of the Peak District (I walked further back then – a normal Sunday was 20+ miles, which is more cycling distance in my old age).  I’ve certainly not seen it here in the southwest before: even on the higher parts of Dartmoor it’s only ever been a light covering.

Down in town it’s been heavily treated with grit and salt, making a nightmare of slush (and liable to freeze into an ice rink if the ground temperature drops a bit more, as happened in the cold snap before christmas when we had a taster of the snow followed by real ice).  But as soon as you’re off the treated roads it’s lovely fairytale stuff.  The kiddies are out in force on toboggans and variants: I don’t think I’ve ever seen such crowds on the pimple (a mound featuring good child-size slopes) as today, and everyone having fun.  On the downside, looks like delivery of my new toy has been delayed.  And more seriously, the whole street’s rubbish is sitting uncollected outside: we put it out on Monday evening for collection on Tuesday morning.

Best of all is the snowy winter sky, and a winter light which I find inspirational.  I think this particular light play of gold and a paler shade of blue – something I have seen before but which is beautifully complemented by the picture-postcard snow-covered trees – might indeed be a feature of our ever-changing Atlantic weather.  Must try and get out into the higher moors for a full day’s walking, if we get another similarly-mixed day short of full snow-blindness sunshine.

Is this something like what folks from our great flat areas in the east of England mean when they talk of “big skies”?